By RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA
Published: May 30, 2013
Opponents of race-based affirmative action in college admissions urge that colleges use a different tool to encourage diversity: giving a leg up to poor students. But many educators see real limits to how eager colleges are to enroll more poor students, no matter how qualified — and the reason is money.
“It’s expensive,” said Donald E. Heller, dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University. “You have to go out and identify them, recruit them and get them to apply, and then it’s really expensive once they enroll because they need more financial aid.”
The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon in a closely watched case over admissions at the University of Texas at Austin, and the court could outlaw any consideration of race.
Opponents of affirmative action welcome that prospect, arguing that race-conscious admissions favor minority applicants who are not disadvantaged, and people on both sides of the issue contend that colleges should do more to achieve socioeconomic diversity. Polls show that while most Americans oppose racial or ethnic preferences in college admissions, they also think colleges should give extra help to the poor.
Some states have already banned affirmative action, including California, Florida, Michigan and Washington, and in each of them, the selective public universities stepped up their efforts to recruit disadvantaged students, hoping to enroll more black, Hispanic and American Indian students in the process.
Opponents of race-conscious admissions say they expect similar moves across the country if the Supreme Court strikes down affirmative action.
But even in those race-blind states, highly selective public colleges vary widely in how hard they work to identify high-achieving, disadvantaged students and prepare them for college, how heavily they weight disadvantage in admissions, and how generous they are with financial aid. Not surprisingly, they also differ greatly in how many disadvantaged students they enroll — and the same is true among elite public and private schools that still do consider race and ethnicity.
Socioeconomic disadvantage can mean many things, like attending a low-performing high school or having parents who do not speak English, but one consistent measure available for nearly every American college is the number of students receiving Pell Grants, the main form of federal aid for low- and moderate-income students. In 2010-11, 35 percent of undergraduates going to four-year state colleges or private nonprofit colleges received Pell Grants. In general, the more selective the school, the lower that number was.
But in the University of California system, one of the most competitive in the country, more than 40 percent of students were Pell recipients, including 34 percent at Berkeley and 36 percent at Los Angeles, the two most selective campuses in the system. At the University of Michigan, which is similar in selectivity and prestige, and also operates under a ban on considering race, only 16 percent of undergraduates received Pell Grants.
So what accounts for the difference in the number of poor students enrolled in two similar elite public university systems, California’s and Michigan’s? Experts say that the level of state budget support, the intensity of recruitment efforts and other admissions decisions like legacy admissions are all factors.
One crucial factor is outreach programs, starting as early as the middle school years. Studies show that large numbers of talented low-income students are ill-prepared for college, or never apply to selective schools, as though those colleges and the students were invisible to each other.
California voters were the first to outlaw affirmative action, passing Proposition 209 in 1996, and in the following years, the University of California system expanded an already-robust set of programs to identify and nurture promising low-income students.
“Nobody else has had anything comparable,” except, at times, the University of Washington, said Deirdre Bowen, a law professor at the University of Seattle who has written extensively on affirmative action. “But it matters much more at highly selective places like Michigan and Virginia.”
Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Syracuse University and a former provost at Michigan, declined to comment on any particular school’s efforts, but said, “There’s no question that some institutions have done a better job than others of building relationships in disadvantaged communities, which takes years.”
In a written statement, the University of Michigan cited a long list of programs it operates in disadvantaged communities, but they are relatively small compared with California’s, and many of them have existed only since Michigan voters banned affirmative action in 2006.
“The university is strongly committed to diversity of all kinds in the student body, including socioeconomic diversity,” the university said, adding that the proportion of students at Michigan from low-income families has grown significantly in the last decade. “We are moving in the right direction.”
Another measure that increases the enrollment of disadvantaged students is accepting all top students from every high school, ensuring that low-income communities are well-represented. In areas with highly segregated schools, that has increased black and Latino enrollment in state universities. Texas, Florida and California have used this approach to varying degrees since they were barred from considering race; Michigan, like the elite schools that still have race-conscious admissions, has not.
Legacy admission — the practice of giving preference to the children of alumni or donors — overwhelmingly favors well-off, white students, leaving less room for poor students. Some schools, after dropping affirmative action for ethnic minorities, also dropped legacy preferences, notably Texas A&M and the University of Georgia. But Michigan’s legacy program continues.
Public universities, in particular, caution that differences in low-income enrollment can reflect factors they have little control over, like the relatively low poverty rate in Virginia, or the level of help they get from state governments. States vary widely in direct support for their universities, and in the financial aid they provide; by both measures, Michigan ranks near the bottom, a fact that the university cited in discussing its low number of disadvantaged students.
State universities affect their socioeconomic mix by deciding how often to admit out-of-state students, who pay much higher tuition, and are less likely to be poor — important considerations in an era of dwindling state support. Elite schools with national reputations could easily fill most of their seats from beyond their borders, but some choose to rely more heavily on that pool than others. Among U.S.-resident undergraduates, out-of-staters account for 11 percent at Berkeley, and 34 percent at Michigan.
An elite university’s openness to accepting transfers from other schools also influences its economic diversity, because many transfer applicants start at community colleges or other, less prestigious public colleges, where low-income students are more prevalent.
In California and Texas, public universities are unusually welcoming to transfer students who have earned good grades elsewhere; they do not ask to see high school grades, or SAT or ACT scores, and they actively recruit from community colleges. Transfers accounted for 35 percent of newly enrolled students at Berkeley last year, 25 percent at Texas-Austin, and well under 20 percent at Michigan.
At most top public schools, more than 90 percent of the financial aid supplied directly by the universities is based on financial need; at Michigan, it is 66 percent. But the university said that much of the aid that is, in name, “merit-based,” goes to students who also receive “need-based” aid, making up for the paucity of aid from their home state.
“We have a longstanding pledge to meet the full demonstrated financial need of Michigan resident undergraduates,” the university said, noting that it is “the only public institution in the state and one of just a handful in the country to do so.”